Observatory heads into second decade, slates programs

In 2020 we will be celebrating the McCarthy Observatory’s 20th anniversary.

Volunteers broke ground on a site adjacent to the town’s new high school on May 6, 2000.

Seven months later, on Dec. 2, they gathered together again to dedicate the facility and celebrate the start of its mission — to further science literacy.

Twenty years later, the observatory’s mission is more important than ever as the public is challenged daily with a barrage of contradictory information on topics than impact everyday life and what the future holds.

I hope that you will join us in celebrating our second decade of educational excellence and take advantage of this extraordinary local resource.

As you may have noticed, Venus has returned to the evening sky.

Venus is brightest when closest to Earth and its separation greatest from the sun in the evening or morning sky.

Our cloud-shrouded twin reaches its highest point in the evening sky on March 24 (brightest on April 28) and in the morning sky on Sept. 7 (brightest on July 8).

The innermost planet, Mercury, rarely strays far enough from the sun to be easily seen in the evening or morning twilight.

One of the best evening appearances occurs around Feb. 10 when Mercury sets almost two hours after sunset in the western sky.

If you are an early riser, you can catch Mercury in early November, when it rises two hours before sunrise in the east.

The outer planets return to the evening sky in the latter half of 2020, appearing at their brightest when they are at or near opposition (when the planet is opposite the sun in our sky).

Jupiter reaches opposition on July 14 when the gas giant will be less than 400 million miles from Earth.

As its brightest, Jupiter is surpassed only by Venus in planetary luminosity.

The gas giant can be found in the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, and will be visible in the evening sky in the months before and after opposition.

Saturn reaches opposition about a week later on July 20.

Also found in the constellation Sagittarius, Saturn will be considerably fainter than Jupiter, in part from being more than twice the distance from Earth.

This coming year, Saturn’s magnificent ice rings are displayed at a picturesque angle, as viewed from Earth, with the planet’s north pole sunlit.

The ice giants, Neptune and Uranus, are well positioned for viewing in the months of September and October, respectively.

Several billion miles from Earth, at their closest, a telescope is required to resolve their blue- and green-hued planetary disks.

Neptune can be found in the constellation Aquarius the Water Carrier and Uranus in Aries the Ram.

Finder charts are available on websites such as Heavens-Above, The Sky Live, and Sky and Telescope if you need assistance locating the two outlying worlds.

Mars and Earth align about every 26 months, with opposition occurring in 2020 on Oct. 13 (the two planets are closest a week earlier on Oct. 6).

All oppositions are not equal with Mars’ more elongated orbit — distances between the two planets at opposition can vary as much as 28 million miles.

Earth and Mars will come within 39 million miles in 2020, a relatively close encounter.

While greater in distance than in 2018, and therefore appearing smaller in size and not as bright, the Red Planet will be better placed for observation — 30 degrees higher in the sky.

Mars will be found in constellation Pisces the Fish, with the planet’s south polar cap tilted towards Earth.

No less than four missions are in the final stages of preparation to take advantage of the relatively short, six-month transit time available around the time of opposition.

If successful, the year 2021 could see three new rovers exploring the planet’s surface and two new orbiters probing a planet that scientists believe could have supported life earlier than the Earth.

Bill Cloutier is among the volunteers at the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford.